Pattern Understanding

Bill Mollision said (I'm paraphrasing here) that once you understand patterns, you understand everything in the world.

Earth shifting in Volcanoes National Park, HI, USA

Meaning once you understand patterns, the rest of life is just applying and designing for these patterns.

The more that you look into the patterns around you, the more you see them not only in space, but also in behaviour and time...  and the pursuit of patterns becomes a little bit of the exploration of the metaphysical.  We are connected to the past, the future, the present to all other beings in these events and patterns on the landscape.

"To see a world in a grain of sand, 
and heaven in a wild flower, 
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour."
-William Blake

Narrow-leaved Cotton Grass (Eriophorum angustifolium), Banff National PArk

Pattern Recognition

Ok- so how do you go about recognizing and understanding patterns?  Well, take a step back and observe the world around you.

What are some basic patterns in the landscape?

  • light, dunes, sound, breathing, heart beats, ocean waves, avalanches, music, peristalsis, sonar, vibrations, movement of snakes, circadian rhythms

Waves ripple out from the canoe and paddle on Lake Bunyoni, Uganda
  • Amplification or dampening of waves (acoustics), mangroves calming coastal waters, integrating structural integrity and flexibility to vibrations by incorportating wave forms in physical structures (bridges, earthquake resistant buildings), reflection or absorption of light

  • Snail shells, embryos, plant tendrils, inner ear, whirpool, tornadoes, eddies, funnels, screws, springs, galaxies, sunflowers
Hapu'u pulu Tree Fern, (Cibotium glaucum)
Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
  • patterns of growth and movement, compress space, information, allows force to pass without bending (retaining structural integrity) and reducing turbulence,  spiral grain on some species of trees to withstand high wind, spirals allow fluids to travel as fast as possible without transitioning from a laminar to turbulent flow (rotors and impellers), expansion or contraction of tissues (tissues surrounding the uterus expand and contract during pregnancy because of spiral muscle tissues), seeds in the sunflowers are optimized in the flower head because they are arranged in a spiral (The seeds mature from the outside to the inside of the flower head so as  the seeds at the centre mature, they push those at the periphery out, forming a spiral)

  • cracks in the mud, honeycomb, pineapple, a turtle's shell, basalt columns, structure of benzene, bee and wasp nests, soccer balls, insect eyes
Each hexagon in a pineapple is an individually
fertilized fruit
  • Conservation of space and material (packing),  support heavy weights (by forming a pyramidal structure when hexagonal cells are layered together), the three-way junctions of 120 degree angles is the most economical angle for joining things together

  • roots, blood vessels, rivers, antlers, trees, family trees, word of mouth

Big Leaf Maple, (Acer macrophyllum) in autumn

  • collection and distribution of materials, energy, rain water patterns, pathways, transportation

Overlapping lobes
  • Scales, feathers, pine cones

Douglas Fir cone (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

  • protect from the elements or predators, reflect/absorb light, affects travel through fluids (eg shark skin made up of small scales with longitudinal grooves which reduce water drag), open as they mature (pine cones), rasping surfaces (cutting), adds flexibility and strength

Other patterns you might see on the landscape are- spheres ,lobes cloud forms, points, meanders, explosions, nets....  As well as non spatial patterns such as behaviour and patterns (dance, ritual, customs) through space (eg. succession in a forest).


Nature uses patterns to solve design challenges: for example, to provide, strength, reduce material, optimize space, optimize edge etc....  We can observe how nature has evolved these patterns and use them to design our own lives. is a website dedicated to looking at 'how nature does it' and then applying these principles to problems of producing energy, capturing heat, transportation, clothing, building houses etc.

Lava flowing, Hawaii

"If we are to reach an understanding of the basic, underlying patterns of natural phenomena, we will have evolved a powerful tool for design, and found a linking science applicable to many disciplines." -Bill Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual, pg.70

Pattern Application

"Patterning is the way we frame our designs, the template into which we fit the information, entities, and objects assembled from observation, map overlays, the analytic divination of connections, and the selection of specific materials and technologies.  It is the patterning that permits our elements to flow and function in beneficial relationships.  The pattern is design, and design is the subject of permaculture." - Bill Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual, pg.70

When you learn about patterns, it's like a principle.  They are usually applicable over a wide range of situations, environments and scales.  Using and understanding patterns can be a powerful design tool.  

When we are designing garden we try to apply some of the spatial and temporal patterns to try to minimize path space, and increase the productivity and beneficial relationships.  For example we might use spiral beds, keyhole beds, clumped plantings, interplantings, succession through time. 

Woven willow keyhole bed in a cloche
Linnaea Farm, Cortes Island, BC

In addition, designers will study the wind, water and sun patterns of our sectors in order to help us to diffuse, direct or modify the energies that come onto our site.  The climate patterns will help us choose a site for a house, as well as to whether we need windbreaks or other modifications on the landscape.

In saying that, Mollison gives us one caveat when learning about patterns: " We should not confuse the comprehension of FORM with the knowledge of SUBSTANCE-"the map is not the territory"-but an understanding of form gives us a better comprehension of function, and suggests appropriate strategies for design."- Bill Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual, pg.71

Patterns of Boundaries (edge effects)

A subject that Mollison goes into a great deal is what happens in the intersection between two different things, people, media, elevations, etc.  Where you have a meeting of water and air, forest and meadow, people from different neighbourhoods you will usually find the following:
  • stress/conflict
  • flow/energy interruption
  • particles accumulation
  • specialized niches
  • resources available from two different places.

Shells accumulate on the edge of the ocean and the beach, Cortes Island, BC

We can design and react to these edges in different ways: we can diffuse the interaction, conduct it, do nothing or get a translator (to buffer interactions between two media).  Edges can be productive and interesting places and we want to observe the patterns of these interactions and then design so that we have the most beneficial relationships and connections between elements.  Boundaries are where most trade and energy changes occur in life.

"Stupidity is an attempt to iron out all differences, not to use or value them creatively." - Bill Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual, pg.80


When creating a system or a design, you need to make sure that the size (order or scale) will work.  For example, when you study streams, you find that they can be classified into seven orders depending on size, volume, gradient, branches, distances.  You also find different behaviours in all of those different size streams and branches.  When we have a small creek  on a slope in the mountains, usually the water is turbulant, and plants/animals/insects have ways to suction themselves on to rocks and substrate.  In the a middle order stream, where a few creeks join together and the gradient is less steep, the water is calmer, but still oxygenated and you have many fish that are active swimmers, as well as insects that move about, but don't need quite the same suction parts to survive.  In the big rivers at the bottom of the valley, usually the water is calmer still, less oxygenated, nutrients accumulate and you might have more species like molluscs, invertebrates and fish that are not as active.

Wide meandering rivers emptying into the ocean

When the order of river changes, in volume, flow, gradient, substrate, you see that you get different species and different behaviour.  It is the same with other patterns, when you change the size and apply it to a bigger or smaller scale you may get somewhat different results.  For example, if you are feeding 2 people, 12 people or 500 people, you will find that you are still preparing food, but how you prepare, the amount of people you need to help and the tools of the trade will change quite drastically.

Students at ASYV helping to prepare green beans for 600 people, Rwanda

"As designers, we need to study and apply branching patterns to roads or trails, and to be aware of the stable orders of such things as human settlements, or we may be in conflict both with order flow (can we increase the size of a highway and not alter all roads?)....." Bill Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual, pg.93

The Web of Life

Becoming pattern conscious, to recognize patterns can help us read the landscape, read ourselves, understand the world around us.  Patterns in nature give us clues to how to become better designers. Patterns in nature can help us solve design challenges.

Moss climbing a tree in the coastal rainforest


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